Friday, August 12, 2016

Voices from the Land

I don't think I've ever embedded a Ted Talk before.  This one covers some of the key points Bernie Krause makes in his recent book The Great Animal Orchestra.  The book's title comes from an insight that came to him after several years of field recording: different species have evolved to fit within their own acoustic bandwidth, so that the natural soundscape is structured like orchestral music. Krause distinguishes the biophony, sounds of living organisms, from the geophony, those natural sounds that spring from the wind, water and earth.  The geophony is the music of the underlying landscape.  In his chapter 'Voices from the Land' Krause recalls a revelatory experience of geophonic sound, back in 1971 when he was still recording with Paul Beaver (their album In a Wild Sanctuary, a pioneering fusion of synthesised music and field recording, had been released the previous year).  One frosty October day Krause was taken by a Nez Percé elder to the edge of a stream feeding Lake Wallowa in northeastern Oregon.
'After about half an hour, the wind began to funnel down from the high southern pass, gaining force with each passing moment.  A Venturi effect caused the gusts passing upstream through the narrow gorge to compress into a vigorous breeze that swept past our crouched bodies, the combined temperature and windchill now making us decidedly uncomfortable.  Then it happened.  Sounds that seemed to come from a giant pipe organ suddenly engulfed us.  The effect wasn't a chord exactly, but rather a combination of tones, sighs, and midrange groans that played off each other, sometimes setting strange beats into resonance as they nearly matched one another in pitch.  At the same time they created complex harmonic overtones, augmented by reverberations coming off the lake and the surrounding mountains.  At those moments the tone clusters, becoming quite loud, grew strangely dissonant and overwhelmed every other sensation.'
What was the source of this strange soundscape?  Krause relates that he was led to the river bank and shown a cluster of reeds, broken over time by the action of the elements into different lengths.  Those reeds with open holes at the top were played by the wind like flutes.  The Nez Percé elder took out a knife and made himself a flute our of a reed, explaining that this sound was the origin of the music of his people.

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